Streets empty as Ecuador reels from violence

Soldiers are on the streets in several cities in Ecuador as the country reels from an unprecedented day of violence.

Masked gunmen stormed a public TV studio during a live broadcast in the city of Guayaquil and bombs were detonated across Ecuador on Tuesday.

More than 130 prison staff are being held hostage by inmates in five jails.

A 60-day state of emergency began on Monday after a notorious gangster vanished from his prison cell.

It is unclear whether the attack on the TV studio in Ecuador’s largest city was related to the disappearance of the boss of the Choneros gang, Adolfo MacĂ­as Villamar, or Fito, as he is better known.

President Daniel Noboa declared the state of emergency in response to a wave of recent jail riots and escapes from prisons and other acts of violence blamed by authorities on criminal gangs.

He ordered that criminal gangs be “neutralised” and said that an “internal armed conflict” existed within the country.

The government says the violence is a reaction to President Noboa’s plan to build a new high security prison for gang leaders.

The president said on Wednesday that Ecuador would begin to deport foreign prisoners, especially Colombians, to reduce the number of inmates.

Esteban Torres Cobo, a vice minister in President Noboa’s government, said the war on armed gangs could result in many deaths and casualties.

“It’s going to be bloody but this is the change we need in order to have a better future, we cannot be postponing this decision throughout the years, we have to take decision now,” he told the BBC’s Newshour programme.

He said gang leaders were asking for mediation but that the “government is not going to negotiate with no-one.”

A spokesperson for UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said he was “very much alarmed by the deteriorating situation” and the “disruptive impact on the lives of Ecuadorans”.

Meanwhile, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the US “strongly condemned” the recent attacks, while National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Washington was committed to “helping support security and prosperity for the people of Ecuador”.

Hours after the most brazen of the attacks, Guayaquil was like a city waking up from a strange nightmare.

Despite the deteriorating security situation over recent years, few could have expected to see the anchor of state television channel TC with a gun pointed at his head, live on air.

Police have made 70 arrests since Monday, including in response to the storming of the TV station.

The ripple effect of that brazen attack has been to send people for cover, even a day later. The streets are largely empty for a weekday. Many say the situation reminds them of life during the Covid pandemic.

Hundreds of soldiers, including in tanks, are patrolling the streets of Guayaquil and the capital, Quito.

Across the country, schools have remained closed, with lessons taking place online.

China, a major investor in Ecuador, also announced it was temporarily shutting its embassy and consulates.

Soldiers in front of closed stores in Guayaquil
Image caption,Soldiers patrol the streets of Guayaquil

Inside the businesses which remain open in Guayaquil, jumpy private security guards are keeping the doors closed, only allowing people in with caution.

Eduardo, who works for an international clothing firm, said he was in the street buying coffee at the moment the chaos started to unfold and by the time he returned to the office, his colleagues had already started to pack up and leave.

“Today, everyone is working from home,” he said.

Some 125 prison guards and 14 administrative staff are being held hostage across Ecuador, the SNAI prisons agency says.

Four police officers, who authorities say were kidnapped by criminals between Monday and Tuesday, are also being held. Three other officers were freed late on Tuesday.

Police say violence is ongoing in Guayaquil. Eight people were killed and three injured in attacks linked to criminal gangs in the city on Tuesday while two police officers were killed by “armed criminals” in the nearby town of Nobol, police said.

Police say they are in the process of identifying three bodies which were found in a burned-out car in the south of the city overnight.

This is an unprecedented situation for the people of Guayaquil – they have seen political protests and other violent incidents over the years but nothing on the scale of the sheer panic which gripped the city on Tuesday.

Students ran in fear as gunmen entered their university corridors and bombs were detonated around the country, raising fears that the attacks were co-ordinated.

Those who must venture out, for work or to visit family, are doing so with great trepidation. It has been an exhausting, upsetting 24 hours in Ecuador’s main port.

Nightly curfew to curb violence

In recent years, Ecuador’s prisons have been plagued by violent feuds between jailed members of rival gangs, often resulting in multiple massacres of inmates.

President Noboa’s emergency declaration listed the Choneros (named after the town of Chone in Manabi Province) as well as 21 other gangs as behind the recent spate of violence.

The order built on the state of emergency declared on Monday, which ordains a nightly curfew in an attempt to curb violence following Fito’s escape. Security forces have been trying to re-establish order in at least six jails where riots broke out on Monday.

The escape of Fito represents a huge blow to Mr Noboa’s presidency, barely seven weeks old.

President Noboa, at the age of 36, became Ecuador’s youngest leader to be democratically elected, winning an election tarnished by the assassination of presidential candidate and journalist Fernando Villavicencio.

Villavicencio had reported receiving death threats from Fito just days before he was shot dead while leaving a campaign rally in Quito.

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